Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Tri Speak

‘Tis the off-season and you know what that means: It’s time to answer the FAQs from your non-triathlete family members.

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Like many of us, I will head home for the holidays. This means I’ll spend lots of time with my extremely non-triathlete family. My family’s idea of a triathlon is dinner, dessert AND a movie. In fact, I have seen some of them complete two full triathlons in the same day. Impressive.

Spending time with non-triathletes can be really fun. In a lot of ways it’s exactly what you need after spending all summer and fall training and racing with a bunch of tri dorks. In addition to what I consider normal holiday non-triathloning— fueling with boysenberry pie and ice cream, training to the theater (the same as walking, but you use a Garmin and upload it to Strava)—it’s also a time to take a break from the high-level tri talk of your triathlete friends. I can guarantee you nobody in my family will ask me what percentage my lactate threshold wattage changed over the past year, if tubular tires run faster at 110 or 120 psi, or whether Yamamoto 40 is really all it’s cracked up to be. We don’t get much beyond debating who had the smelliest fart on that one drive to the coast (it was DEFINITELY me, by the way).

But the bummer about spending time with your non-triathlete family and friends is that as soon as triathlon does somehow wiggle its way into your fart conversation—“Does farting in your wetsuit make you faster? Buoyancy, you know…”—you can expect to get the same 10–15 base-level, semi-funny, semi-annoying questions.

So to mentally prepare myself for my own family gatherings, I thought about all the triathlon conversations I’ve had with many a family member. I also polled some Twitter/Facebook peeps for what questions they typically get (thanks a ton, guys!). Below, I’ve prepared a loose guide for a typical conversation you may have with an un-tri-educated family member. I provide it simply as a resource, a way to make the conversation more fluid and potentially help you enjoy the time before that next trip to the cookie platter.

Family: So Jesse, how’s your ______training coming along?

You can insert into the blank any of the following:





Modern Pentathlon (Yes, there’s a difference between Pentathlon and Modern Pentathlon, and I have family members that really want ME to know that THEY know the difference … even though it has nothing to do with triathlon).


Calphalon (I’m pretty sure this is a non-stick chemical of some kind, but it’s found it’s way into the mix before).

Me: Oh, it’s going really well, thanks.

I always debate whether or not it’s worth it to correct the duathlon/biathlon mistake. Most of the time, if the family member doesn’t get the name right, you’re most interested in moving the conversation along as quickly as possible. Plus, even if you do correct the mistake, chances are that next year when you have the exact same conversation with the exact same person, the exact same thing will happen. So what’s the point?

Family: What are the stages of that thing again?

Don’t be thrown off by “stages.” He/she means the sports involved, or “legs.” Again, not worth it to correct.

Me: Swimming, biking and then running.

Family: Oh yes, what’s the order they go in?

Have you ever heard the sports listed in a different order? Why does this question come up so often? The only benefit of this question is you can use the same answer for two questions in a row.

Me: Swimming, biking and then running.

Family: How fa—

It’s OK to cut them off, you know where it’s going.

Me: It depends on the race, but I specialize in the half-iron distance, which is a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike and a 13.1-mile run.

ABSOLUTELY NEVER give distances in metric! This will have a confounding effect on the conversation. You risk delaying movement to the next comment by a minimum of 15–20 minutes. And that’s if you’re lucky and the conversation doesn’t implode into a debate on how many kilometers make a mile, because Uncle Wesley once went to Europe and drove on that Autobahn thing and was going 100 kilometers per hour, which he’s pretty sure is like 200 miles per hour.

Family: OH MY!!! That is SO FAR! I couldn’t even drive that far.

Actually, Aunt Meg drove 247 miles here—without a potty stop so she could make it in time for Alcoholic Eggnog Night—but be gracious and let it slide.

Family: How long does that take you?

Me: Oh about four hours. 25 minutes of swimming, two-plus hours of bi-

Family: Haha, how’s that feel on your balls?!?!

Cousin Jimmy will jump on any opportunity possible to talk about balls. Feel free to disregard the question because, obviously, it doesn’t feel great and everyone knows that already.

Family: Wow, that’s a long time. What do you do if you have to go pee?

This question might seem like it came out of nowhere, but given Jimmy’s shout-out, it’s obvious where everyone’s mind is. Plus, Aunt Meg takes pride in the fact that she can hold it for much longer than anyone in the family.

Me: Honestly, it sounds kind of gross, but I usually just go. You’re all wet, pouring water and ice on yourself. I’ve gotten so good at it that you can’t tell when I’m going.

Then smile, nod and give a wink. If they don’t look down your legs, they’re either too scared to look, or didn’t hear you (completely possible in my family). This is my favorite part of the conversation.

Family: [long pause] Do you shave your legs?

Even though they are all looking at your legs, they still ask this question.

Me: Yes. I shave for races. Shaving your legs helps because it ____________.

You can insert whatever you want into this blank (is aerodynamic, reduces road rash, etc.) to justify shaving your legs, even though the real reason is that it makes you feel cool … which is the exact opposite of how it will make you feel in this moment. Cue disapproving look from Uncle Frank, who will try to put you in place with the next question.

Family: So, you ever going to do a full triathlon?

Even though every time you do a triathlon, you do a “full triathlon,” he of course means an iron-distance triathlon.

Me: Oh, yeah, I think so. I’m sure I’ll do it one of these days.

As you smile broadly, while thinking, “How dare you disrespect my triathlon distance!”

Family: I saw triathlon on TV, but the guys on motorcycles didn’t swim, they threw Frisbees at each other.

Me: Ahh [long pause before your “aha” moment]. Actually, I think you’re talking about the movie “Tron.” No big deal though. “Tron” does sound a lot like “triathlon.” I’ve had people make that mistake before.

No you haven’t.

Family: You must train all the time.

Me: Yeah, it’s a lot of training. Anywhere from 15 to 30 hours a week. It’s fun, but it can definitely be a grind as well. Lots of early days and late nights.

Family: Wow, do you train every day?

Me: Yep, every day. There really aren’t too many off-days. Most of the time my weekends are my biggest training days.

Family: I heard that it’s also really expensive.

Me: Well yep, it is. Between travel, entry fees and equipment, it can be a lot of dough.

Family: So … why do you do it?

Boom! This is where your family has your number. I can guarantee you that no matter what questions were asked before, how improbable, annoying, funny, and/or inappropriate, all roads lead to the “why” question. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? You just told them all about the endless hours of training, the ridiculous amounts of money you spend, how you pee yourself regularly, how bad your wetsuit farts smell and that, after all the work, you don’t even get a minor role in the movie “Tron.” To the non-triathlete mind, why the hell would you do this sport?

Obviously, everyone’s answer to this question is different. Some people do it for fitness, a challenge, structure, a release. Some of us do it to earn a modest living or gain even more modest fame. My own answer to this question changes from time to time, year to year, so I won’t suggest a response. You’re on your own. But the process of digging into yourself and answering the “why” question, to people who know you better than anyone, is just the type of reevaluation all of us should have during the off-season. It helps you assess your own motives, what you gained or lost over the past season, what needs to change in order to improve or set new goals. It’s just the sort of question you should be asking yourself anyway.

So at the end of the day, no matter how many times you have to repeat yourself or answer an annoying question, it’s always awesome to spend a chunk of time with your non-triathlon family every year. Thanks, as always, to my own family not only for the flattering and genuine interest, but for keeping it real around the alcoholic eggnog blender.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a three-time Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Bend, Ore., and is the CEO of Picky Bars (

Read all of Jesse Thomas’ “Triathlife” columns.

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